Yemenis Deserve Liberty but Fighting Terrorism Comes First: View

A starkly undeveloped, rugged country at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen languished in obscurity for years. It’s amazing what a thriving branch of al-Qaeda and a popular rebellion can do for a country’s name recognition.

Now Yemen’s fate is of global importance, precisely because, as a state on the verge of collapse, it is a haven for terrorists. It is vital that the U.S. and its allies respond carefully to the unrest there.

After refusing for weeks to abide by a provision of an agreement with Yemen’s opposition to pass power to his deputy, President Ali Abdullah Saleh left this weekend for Saudi Arabia to get treatment for wounds sustained in a rocket attack on his compound. It’s only temporary, Saleh’s spokesmen say, vowing that once he is healthy he will return.

Saudi Arabia, the main power within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the club of Persian Gulf monarchies that brokered the agreement and helps sustain Yemen with aid, wants stability and is eager to see the terms of the deal honored. Under the accord, Saleh would get immunity, Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi would form a unity government, and presidential elections would follow within two months.

The U.S. should encourage the Saudis, who now have unique leverage, to persuade their visitor to respect the deal’s terms.

A formula as simple as the GCC accord cannot address the myriad challenges facing Yemen, which outside of the capital Sana’a is more a patchwork of tribes than a nation. And then there is the all-important question of who might win the presidential election. But the agreement is a start, at least, toward addressing popular demands for change. The Obama administration is right to support it.

Local Terrorist Branch

In the short term, it’s also reasonable for the administration to take its lead from the Saudis on Yemen. Both Washington and Riyadh have the same main interest there -- the suppression of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Its goals include attacking the U.S., hitting Western targets in Yemen, destabilizing Yemen’s government and killing Saudi royals.

Saleh’s government has cooperated with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. It’s important that a successor follows suit. Yemenis themselves have no love for al-Qaeda generally. A poll done for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 84 percent of Yemenis viewed al-Qaeda unfavorably.

The remaining 16 percent, of course, is a sufficient pool for recruits and accomplices. That is one reason why, in the long run, the U.S. must do more than insist that a future Yemeni government polices terrorism. Even if it means displeasing the Saudis, the U.S. should provide aid and expertise to encourage liberty, economic development and justice in Yemen -- to promote a society in which young men want to build families, homes and careers rather than bombs.

One mustn’t be overly optimistic. Yemen has almost no civil institutions. Its competing tribes are at risk of tearing the country apart. Still, Yemenis deserve their own chance to cultivate the flowers of the Arab Spring.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at